French President Emmanuel Macron removed all remaining Covid-19 restrictions in the country on Monday, joining most other European nations on a continent desperate for a return to normalcy.
Yet the number of infections and deaths from the virus remains significant. The week before France lifted all rules, no longer even requiring masks on public transport, the country recorded nearly 200,000 contagions and more than 500 deaths. Germany, Italy, the UK and the rest of Western Europe also continue to see large numbers, even though the recorded cases are falling as the weather warms and higher levels of immunity possibly take hold.
Is it too much too soon to pull down all the rules? WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge told an earlier press conference that he is “optimistic but vigilant” about the pandemic in Europe, yet countries including Germany, France, Italy and the UK lifted their Covid curbs too “brutally”.
But citizens have clearly had enough. Most followed guidance, did the “correct” thing, got vaccinated, wore masks and stayed home. Yet more than two years on, the virus is still a major fact of life – and death. Did science get it horribly wrong?
The anti-vax brigade has rejoined mainstream life, probably feeling somewhat exonerated. Despite all the vaccination doses administered and inoculation centers established, the virus is still circulating.
Yet there are several issues at play that skew perceptions. First, the actual number of infections and deaths worldwide is much higher than the official statistics, so the virus was likely more contagious and deadly than widely reported.
So today infection numbers may seem to stay stubbornly high, but the reality is not nearly as alarming as it once was.
In many developing countries, poor public health and administration systems were clearly unable to provide an accurate count. As well, due to the stigma attached, many citizens of poorer countries simply stayed home with no medical care when sick with the virus. Of course, not all survived.
Even in Europe, there seemed to be a wide disparity in reporting. Some nations only reported a Covid-19 death if it came as the primary cause while others listed it as a Covid fatality if a person with an underlying condition died while positive for the virus. Suspiciously, cases and deaths in many countries could over the weekends – days set aside for rest across the continent. Of course, death didn’t take a holiday, the healthcare staff did, so not all numbers were recorded.
And surely some countries de-emphasized testing and counting after making the policy decision to prioritize the economy, which is also crucial to people’s lives.
So the questions for Europe are how far nations have really come in fighting Covid-19 and how prepared the continent is to move forward as all restrictions are lifted.
If one wants to see if the situation has improved, an honest appraisal of how bad it was is necessary. Using statistical analysis and other methodologies, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently estimated that the true death toll worldwide by Dec. 31, 2021 was in the range of 13.3 million to 16.6 million, nearly three times the number in official statistics on that date.
But could it have gone even higher without the intervention of medical science?
A study by the WHO Regional Office for Europe and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control late last year estimated that 470,000 lives were saved among those aged 60 years and over since the start of vaccination programs in 33 countries across the European region.
That estimate does not include lives saved by vaccinating people younger than 60 years nor lives saved from the indirect effect of vaccination because of a possible reduction in transmission.
Dr. Kluge of the WHO said “Covid-19 has exacted a devastating death toll in our region, but we can now categorically say that without vaccines as a tool to contain this pandemic, many more people would have died.”
And as Europe takes a much-needed breath of fresh air to enjoy some semblance of what life was like before the virus, can people really relax and let down their guard? Perhaps take some time to celebrate the lives saved along with counting those that were lost?
Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, says strong surveillance can help in anticipating future risks posed by a mutating virus. “We know that the virus transmits in indoor areas that are poorly ventilated and accommodate the public,” he said. “One of the main issues to work through is better ventilating these areas without sacrificing energy use.”
Any resurgence will likely depend on the population immunity in a country due to the vaccination rate and history of previous illness.
The pandemic is not over, many people surely sense, but warm weather, blooming spring flowers, short-sleeved shirts and sunglasses seem to have lightened the mood. Local street markets are back in full swing and tourists have returned in significant enough numbers to be noticed.
Determined to have a lovely warm spring and summer, residents of Europe have ditched the mask, ordered a cappuccino at the local cafe and returned to discussing politics, football and plans for the seaside, eternal sources of entertainment and passion on the continent.
For now autumnal days with a possible virus surge seem a long way off.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy
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